A Tornado in The North
by Sydney O’Shaughnessy
Tuesday, July 8, 2014
In the barn, the wind is roaring through the walls. It is much windier than it has ever been before. Green leaves fly past the windows and the walls creak and groan. Worried, Dan O’Brien looks out of the barn window and sees the lilac trees in his yard whipping around. They no longer stand upright but, instead, are tipped at 45-degree angles.
Dan runs to the large silver milk bulk tanks to hide. He glances to his cattle, all lined up in rows for the evening milking. The barn shudders. He pulls his maroon sweatshirt hood up over his ball cap and sits down by the tank. He does not know what is happening. He has never experienced a storm like this.
Where Dan lives in the North Country, the worst of the weather is snow. Countless winters, his fields have been covered with upwards of 150 inches of it. He knows weather but not this weather. Suddenly, the roof above him bends and moans, and sweat drops form on Dan’s head, shining in the yellow light of the barn.
Watching his trees keel over is so alien that fear quickly consumes him, leaving him seemingly stuck to the floor of the barn. There he sits, unsure of what to do next. The lights cut out.
Above him, the roof rips from the structure sending metal and wood debris raining down around him. Wood paneling scrapes down the walls and crashes to the ground. He can’t hear anything over the sounds of ripping metal, crashing walls, and the screams of his livestock. He shuts his eyes.
When he opens them, it is calm. He picks his way out of the piles of metal and wood and looks around. His barn is partially standing and trees have been ripped out of the ground. He rushes to help his cows just as Genie, his mother, pulls in the driveway. Her old blue “Gene’s Flower Shop” sign that typically stands in front of the house is thrown across the yard.
Ten miles away, Mary Demko is also returning home. When she pulls into the driveway, her property is foreign to her. Her garage is completely destroyed, a mound of twisted metal, wood and shards of glass in its place. A truck sits upside down in her lawn, its windows shattered and doors dented. Its rusted undercarriage looks like it is paying homage to the sky. Her home no longer has a roof. Looking around, her chest feels tight, so she takes a deep breath and steps out of her car. Immediately, sirens and the yells of first responders envelop her. Police cars and fire trucks consume her property and people are everywhere. She calls her nephew and his wife, John and Jean Demko, to ask if she could stay at their place until they can figure out what to do next.
“I got the call that night,” John said. “I thought it was a fire or something but she said the wind come up and took everything. I drove up to get her immediately.”
Like the O’Brien’s, her property and life has been ripped apart.
Before The Storm
Tuesday, Late Afternoon
The O’Brien’s settle into their evening routines in their old white house off of Route 26 heading into Lowville, a village located in Northern New York. From the front porch, the rolling green hills and farmland sprawls as far as the eye can see. Red winged black birds swoop along the roadside, lightly landing on telephone wires or tall grasses to rest. The birds do not sit for long and fly off, probably headed to a wetland to mate or to find some insects to eat. A chipped blue sign, “Gene’s Flower Shop,” sways gently in the wind.
It is a hot and clear day this afternoon with temperatures reaching 75 degrees. However, now, the sun is getting low, sending warm, gold light into the miles of cornfields surrounding the house. Cows graze outside of the O’Brien’s house, waiting to be brought back in to the barn for the evening. Dan O’Brien and another farm hand are tending their cows.
The farmland looks like an earth-toned quilt was thrown over the landscape, stretching forever in all directions. It is calm and quiet.
Soon, the wind starts to pick up, but it isn’t anything out of the ordinary because the open fields are often windy. The old business sign creaks and swings on rusty chains. Dan O’Brien continues his work, bringing the cows into the barn to prepare them for the evening milking. Genie O’Brien, his mother, is on her way home from town.
Mary Demko’s residence is quiet. She is at a hair appointment and all the lights are off. However, soon, dark storm clouds fill the sky and reflect off of her windows.
Quickly, the towering storm clouds shade out the golden late afternoon. The day looks and feels different. There are no birds, and the once refreshing evening air becomes thick with humidity. Large, grey raindrops begin spilling from the clouds, splashing on the pavement.
The wind is picking up, whipping around the shrubbery. Mary’s shingles fly off the roof, slamming to the earth around her residence. An electrical wire pops, hisses, and its sparks glint off of the dark windows. What seems to be a severe thunderstorm settles in.
After The Storm
Wednesday, July 9, 2014
Genie has her car radio on while she looks out at her disfigured property. Ten trees lay strewn about, and an old oak has fallen into her front porch. Its heavy trunk crumpled the porch roof like paper, and white-painted shards of wood cover the ground like the first snow. Her barn is decapitated with its roof demolished and walls sagging. Last night, the men, with help from emergency responders, pulled over a dozen dead cows from the wreckage. Her silo lies in a pile.
“A team from the National Weather Service stationed in Buffalo, New York states that an EF1 tornado hit Lowville, NY yesterday at approximately 6:40 p.m.,” the radio announcer says. “Estimated wind speeds were 100 mph and there is widespread power outages and seven roads closed throughout the region.”
Genie does not need to be told that she is one of the 2,800 people displaced by the storm. She clicks off the station.
An EF1 tornado is characterized as creating moderate property damage, including stripped roofs, flipped mobile homes, broken windows and doors. The wind speed often reaches 100 mph. To Genie, it seemed like a much more powerful storm and she questions if the National Weather Service was correct in their determination.
She thinks back to the last time strong winds impacted their home. It was the Microburst of 1995, 22 years ago. It’s out of the ordinary for Northern New York to have any extreme weather besides snow. But, recently, the winters have been different and the summers hotter. She wonders if that has anything to do with the tornado. Outside, she watches her son, Dan, community members, and emergency responders clean up her property.
“The fire department came right up and started piling up the debris,” Genie said. “Another guy came and wouldn’t charge Danie [Dan O’Brien] anything. Anyway, they all worked and piled it all up and the fire department came and set it on fire because there is nothing you can do. Lots and lots of people. It was very good.”
One of the volunteers comes up to Genie to talk to her about the scene.
“Gene, there’s nothing here,” She said.
“I know, I hate it,” Genie said. “I’d like my trees back.”
Up the hill at the Demko property, there was a similar community response. Unaffected community members, in neon shirts, work gloves and jeans, all joined forces to clean up the debris but Mary doesn’t want it to be cleaned up so fast. She wants to take down her house piece by piece to remember her life there because she has been living on that property her entire life. But slow clean up was not an option.
“I told her, ‘Mary, you’ve got the help here today—you are never gonna get it again better than what you got now,’” John said.
After clean up, there was nothing left at Mary’s property except a large concrete slab where the house used to be. She knows she will be moving.
Spring 2017 – Three Years Later
Life has returned to normal for the Demkos. After the insurance went through and a small monetary loss to the family, the property was cleaned up and they went back to work on the farm.
“I feel bad for her because it was where she and her husband farmed it for all their life,” Jean said. “Thank God she wasn’t in the house, she probably wouldn’t have lived.”
But, according to the Demkos, the emotional trauma stayed with Mary for a while.
“She was numb for a while, like, she didn’t want to talk about it but we keep telling her that she was so lucky to have been away and she eventually came to the fact that she was, actually, lucky,” Jean said.
Together, with the community’s support, they were able to salvage most of the important things from Mary’s residence and help her recuperate from post-disaster shock. But Lowville is no longer Mary’s home. She now lives three hours east from Lowville.
However, the same cannot be said of the O’Briens. They were not able to recover everything. They still do not have trees or a barn, and their old white house and its residents are still scarred with the past.
Today, Genie stands in her cluttered kitchen and stares out the door. After the storm, her house was severely damaged, and they didn’t have the insurance or money to fix it. Mold grows on the ceiling and down the walls, and extension cords snake along the floor. Dan moved in to the front of the house because, after the storm, he couldn’t stand living in the smaller house next door. Genie now lives in the back of the house.
“Any wind that comes through, it’s really a trauma for him,” Genie said. “After the storm, if any rain comes through, any storm, any wind, he just goes bonkers. Even now, he doesn’t like to go up to the barn alone. He wants someone to go with him up to the other barn.”
When asked how she feels when she thinks back to the tornado, she fingers her sleeves and stares where the barn used to stand, as if she can still see it, vividly. She takes a deep breath.
“I don’t know, you just, we were just, right in the road of the damn tornado,” Genie said. “There’s nothing here. You don’t like when something like that happens. You lose everything, everything, everything.”
For Genie, the tornado path remains etched into the landscape.
But she tries to stay positive by reflecting on how lucky they were that no one was hurt and that most of their farm equipment was saved. She is still actively trying to get a few trees back in her yard, too.
“I went to a workshop the other day on grafting apple trees, so I have a tree coming,” Genie said.
“One apple tree.”
Sydney O’Shaughnessy currently teaches earth science in NYC and freelances as a science writer and journalist. She is deeply passionate about science and the environmental crisis.